Matt Stell knows what it means to stand at the crossroads.
He was there not too long ago, guitar in one hand and textbook in the other.
The road to his right led toward Cambridge, where Harvard University admitted him to their premed program. Beyond that horizon lay all that a physician’s career could promise: security, meaningful work, maybe a lifetime in academia.
To the left, the other road pointed toward Nashville: honky-tonks, writing sessions and, beyond all that, uncertainty.
Fortunately, Stell made the right choice.
Growing up Stell divided his time between living with his mother on the Florida coast south of Tampa and spending summers, Christmases and spring breaks with his dad in Center Ridge, Arkansas, where he was born. “I saw the ocean in one place and cows in the other,” he explains. “In Florida I lived where the South starts to peter out and the snowbirds from the Northeast come to visit. In Arkansas I was part of a farming family whose roots went back four or five generations. That helped me understand right at the start that family is important … but there’s also a big world out there.”
That applied to music as well. “My grandpa exposed me to Johnny Cash before that was cool,” Stell says. “Since then I’ve always gravitated toward the older stuff from folks like Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline and Merle Haggard. But I also spent half my time with a single mother, so I heard a lot of Bonnie Raitt, Alison Krauss and those ‘single-mother’ artists, which is still some of my favorite music.”
Still, he was slow to try writing or playing himself. Stell was around 12 when his mother gave him his first guitar, which he promptly stowed in a closet and forgot about for eight years or so. Instead, he threw himself into basketball, getting good enough to earn an athletic scholarship and pave the way toward earning his bachelor’s degree at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri and his masters in communication at the University of Arkansas.
He began hanging out with fellow students from Texas, who opened his eyes to their state’s unique legacy of great country music artists. “These people would write their own songs and travel on the road, playing sings to people who were eager to listen. For some of them, something the artist wrote really moved them. That became a big deal to me. I wanted to do that too.”
So Stell began to write. When a bar opened up near the campus that catered to performers doing original material, he signed up. It wasn’t long before he was a regular to that stage, even playing under a pseudonym—Paul Wayne Walker—so that his coach wouldn’t find out. Although he’d enjoyed all kinds of music as a kid, the songs he wrote drew from that well of country music he’d fist tasted with his family. “Country music is baked into the ground where I’m from,” he says. “It permeates like creeks and rivers do.”
Though inspired by time he spent as a student on a medical mission to Haiti, Stell realized when he reached that crossroads that music was the path he was destined to follow. He made the move to Music City around 2014, rented a room from a friend for a while, started playing writer rounds and eventually was signed with Wide Open Music. Headed by songwriters Ash Bowers and Steve Williams, the management firm guided and supported Stell as he stepped decisively down the road — the right road — toward what he now knows he always really wanted.
“I want to be on a stage somewhere, with people singing the songs I wrote back to me,” he says. “I want what I say through my songs and my performance to mean something to people the way that my favorite music means something to me. I hope that audience is as big and diverse as possible. As long as I’m able to achieve that, then I will feel like I’ve won.”